The Alkhanai is one of the few places in Russia where unique natural and sacred objects are harmoniously combined. There has historically been a system of natural religious monuments of the Buddhist religion, which are rightfully the treasury of the material and spiritual culture of the Buryat people.
The Alkhanai Mountain Range, located in the south of the Trans-Baikal Territory, is an ancient Jurassic volcano with an age of more than 150 million years.
Since ancient times, long before Buddhism penetrated into the Trans-Baikal Territory, the Alkhanai was considered by the indigenous inhabitants of the region to be the habitat of great and formidable spirits – masters of mountains, rivers, majestic rocks, gorges, waterfalls, healing springs. It was revered as a sacred place with a miraculous property of healing people from various ailments and charging them with positive energy. The Alkhanai is not only a unique natural site, but also a historical and religious center, one of the five sacred places of northern Buddhism. To preserve this unique object, a national park of the same name was established in 1999.
Buddhism penetrated into the Trans-Baikal Territory relatively recently, at the end of the 18th century, and before that the locals – the Buryats – practiced shamanism. Black shamanism dealt with spirits of earthly origin, and white – with the deities of heaven. Subsequently, white shamanism was assimilated by Buddhism in its Tibetan-Mongolian version – Lamaism. In the area of Mount Alkhanai, especially on its southern spurs, there are many sacred places whose history goes far back to the pre-Buddhist period. Almost all places of worship, as a rule, are tied to buttes, natural caves, grottoes, karst arches, and ravines. In some places there are sacred writings made on stones.
The Tibetan name of the Alkhanai is Lhunshin Tara. This is the only holy place of Buddhism in Russia, where khural Sogshid and sacrifices to thousands of heavenly gods are held. In 1991, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama visited the Alkhanai. A memorial stupa was erected at the place where he first set foot on the Alkhanai land.
The sacred complex of natural shrines of the Alkhanai makes up a single religious world – Demchogei-oron, or the World of Great Good. The central place of the Alkhanai in terms of sacred significance is occupied by the Temple Gate Rock and compactly located around it the Sinners’ Ravine, the Mother's Womb Grotto, the Diamond Princess Butte, the Heavenly Musician, the Heavenly Spirit of Wisdom, the Lamp Temple (or Eternal Lamp), the Temple of the Owner of the Alkhanai Demchog.
The rocky butte with a natural grotto is located on the western slope of the Arshan River valley at an altitude of 1200m above sea level. The grotto is a hemispherical depression in the rock with a diameter of about 7m. In the upper part of the vault there are vertical cracks, from where drops of water, considered curative, flow down. In the Demchog’s Temple, people pray and make offerings in the form of rice grains, coins, cigarettes; scraps of cloth are tied to the branches of trees with requests to grant health, wealth, and well-being.
Demchog, or the Great Good, is the most important tantric deity of Buddhism, allegedly living on Mount Kailash, near the mythical center of the Universe – Mount Sumeru. Demchog is one of the five main Buddhas, the incarnation of Samvara. Believers begin their pilgrimage to the Alkhanai with a visit to the Demchog’s natural temple (Demchog-sume).
This is a massive rock, in the cavity of which, as a result of weathering, a through arch was formed with a width of about 8m and a height of about 6m. A cornice up to 10m high hangs over the arch. The rock rises on the left bank of the Ubzhogoe River.
According to legend, Uuden-sume (Buryat. “uuden” — "opening, door, gate, entrance", sume — "temple, hall") is the gate through which people enter the world of the deity Demchog. According to the custom of the Buryats, a person, before going through them, must put their thoughts, clothes, and body in order. This is one of the most revered and visited places in the Alkhanai: numerous pilgrims and tourists come here every year to worship and lay gifts. The cult of the Temple Gate was formed in pre-Buddhist times.
Under the arch in 1864, believers built a sacred Buddhist stupa – a suburgan. After being destroyed in 1930, it was restored in 1956. Every year on June 29, a large prayer – khural is held here in honor of Demchog, the owner of Alkhanai. It is believed that on this day he is invisibly present here.
People go up to the Temple Gate along stone paths, which are lined on both sides with rather high curbs of stones. Each stone raised and placed on the top of the curb during the ascent and descent personifies a prayer read by a pilgrim. Especially a lot of stones were laid in the terrible years of the Civil and Great Patriotic Wars. On the smooth stone walls, if you look closely, you can see ancient rock carvings. The expressive remnant of the Guardian Zagurdi keep watch over the Temple Gate Butte.
The Sinners’ Ravine, or the Interim World
This is the name of the rocky ridge located slightly higher up the slope from the Temple Gate Butte. At its base, as a result of the natural accumulation of debris , a narrow through passage with a length of 2.5m was formed .
It is believed that if a person freely crawled through this natural gap, it means that they have no sins and the Alkhanai accepts him. If they cannot get through or are afraid, then the Alkhanai does not accept them, because they are a sinner. Buddhists believe that the soul of the deceased hovers in the gaping rock cracks and crevices for 49 days before experiencing rebirth.
A natural grotto about 4m long and about 1.5m high at the entrance is located 300m up the slope from the Temple Gate. Since ancient times, this is one of the most visited places in the Alkhanai, embodying the cult of Mother earth.
A childless woman must enter the cave and break off a piece of stone from the walls or find a pebble at the bottom. In this way she will be healed and will gain the ability to have children. Addressing the mother goddess Tara, the keeper of the grotto, women recite the mantra: "Um dari dudari duri suuha." Copies of birth certificates hung at the entrance to the grotto serve as confirmations of numerous news that desperate women, having bowed to the Alkhanai, became mothers.
The immediate surroundings of the grotto and the entrance itself are literally draped with numerous ribbons and pieces of cloth tied by sufferers. Children's things and toys left as offerings are not uncommon here.
The Diamond Princess
The Dorje Phagmo Rock (Diamond Princess) is located 200m north of the Temple Gate. The diameter of this large rock outcrop at the base is about 10m, and the height is 12m. At the base of the rock there is a small natural niche that serves for various Buddhist rituals.
Dorje Phagmo is the wife of the owner of Alkhanai Demchog, his tantric half. Ritual veneration of the butte is considered a mandatory act of pilgrimage. Here the pilgrim finds moral calm, gets rid of mental anguish and physical suffering, receives an energy charge. A little higher is the butte of Amitayus – the temple of the deity of longevity, personifying the infinity of life on earth.
An impressive oval-shaped rock is located 500m from the Temple Gate on the left bank of the stream flowing into the Ubzhogoe River. The height of the Heavenly Musician Butte in the southern part is 50m, in the northern – 10m. An extensive crevice has been formed in the rock, the lower part of which ends with a horizontal platform, and the upper part with a through oval hole in the rock. Natural stone steps lead to the opening, climbing up which pilgrims lay gifts on an improvised altar.
It is believed that negative energy goes through the hole into space, and a powerful stream of positive energy flows back. Most lamas in pre-Soviet times preferred this particular remnant of all the shrines of the Alkhanai for meditation. A "stone path" for goroo is laid around it.
Heavenly Spirit of Wisdom
The Sandam Rock, one of the main sacred sites of the Alkhanai, is located about 400m from the Heavenly Musician Butte on the slope of the Ubzhogoe River. It differs from the rest of the buttes by its almost smoothed top.
The height of the rock on the north side is 15m, on the south – 30m. There are many cavities and grottoes in the rock. The butte is named after the lion-faced dakini – the heavenly spirit of wisdom, the defender of believers and the teachings of the Buddha. Pilgrims, walking around the Sandam Rock, pray that good will overcome evil, that justice, peace, and tranquility will prevail on earth, that children will master the basics of science.
Healing Waters of the Alkhanai
About 40 rivers and streams flow through the territory of the Alkhanai. The main watercourse of the territory is the Ilya River, but the relatively small Arshan stream, originating in the southern spurs of the Alkhanai, occupies the central place in popularity. The word "arshan" is a commonly used term in the Buryat language, denoting a healing spring, the water of which is considered sacred. The Arshan water is cold (1,9–5,4 ° C), ultra-fresh, calcium bicarbonate type, contains many trace elements: iron, manganese, strontium, iodine, selenium, fluorine, silver. The amount of iodine is 10-50 times higher than its content in the waters of most streams and rivers of the Trans-Baikal Territory. The strong bactericidal effect of the Arshan waters is due to the high content of silver.
In the minds of believers, Arshan is a symbol of the purity and sanctity of all the Alkhanai. Its healing water enjoys great fame not only among the Buryats, but also among the Russian population of the entire Trans-Baikal Territory. Thousands of pilgrims and tourists flock to the Arshan Valley every year. The Buryats have long been treated with the waters of the sacred Arshan, which, passing through gold and silver ores, acquire miraculous power. Holy water requires a special attitude from a person. It brings health, spiritual fulfillment, and therefore, while taking baths, it is important to work on yourself, on your inner world, so that negative thoughts do not harm yourself and the world. The Arshan water increases the ability to work, makes it possible to physically rejuvenate. When taking baths, it is advisable not to wipe yourself with a towel, but to let the body dry naturally.
A cascade of waterfalls is located in the Khara Zaba gorge in the upper reaches of the Salia River (the nearest settlement is the village of Krasnoyarovo). The riverbed is shallow, there are 21 waterfalls for 1km. They are diverse in height (0.5–3m) and shape (pitched, jet, cascade). The waterfalls are especially spectacular in high water. The water in the river is considered curative – pilgrims who managed to overcome the difficult path to this place rest and are treated here.
One of the streams feeding the Salia is called the Arshan of the Nine Troughs, or simply the Nine Troughs. The healing power of this Arshan has been known for a long time. According to the natural riches and landscape, the gorge is the most exotic corner of the Alkhanai. Here sacrifices are made to the spirit of the mountains: coins, rice, matches are scattered on blocks of basalt, and colored scraps are hung on trees and bushes.
The top of Mount Alkhanai
The top of Alkhanai (1662.8 m) is a rocky area formed by a natural accumulation of rubble and small rock fragments. On this site there is a state triangulation sign (a point that determines the coordinates of the terrain and the height above sea level, necessary for creating modern maps).
There is also an obo (Buddhist sacred structure) of oval shape, where believers perform sacrifices. As the highest point of the Alkhanai Mountain Range, this peak has served since ancient times as the place of departure of the traditional cult of the Buryats, who believe that the abode of deities is located here. Along the perimeter of the flat top there is a path that serves for performing sacred rites. In 1991, Mount Alkhanai was consecrated by the 14th Dalai Lama.
The Alkhanai is ideally suited to the concept of a "place of power": after visiting here and returning home, you will be overwhelmed with vivid memories and will certainly feel a surge of strength.